Inexpensive Hi-tech tools many don’t think to buy.
By Pete Rudloff
Sitting in bed the other night, while it was 14F, out I wanted to turn the heater up a few degrees. 10 years ago this would have meant getting out of bed, trudging down the steps and adjusting the thermostat. But in 2016 I just reach over to my phone and click on an app and adjust the settings from the comfort and warmth of my bed, seconds later the heater jumps to life. We live in the most interesting time for technological advancements, ever. Nowadays, there are gadgets and apps for just about anything we need. No longer are special electronic tools a luxury or modern convenience or something you would see in a James Bond movie, they are how we get things done in this era.
Most auto repair shops will boast a pretty good amount of technology. Anymore, a shop with a single scan tool is probably also a shop that advocates for 3,000 mile oil changes on all cars and almost for sure prefers to use a fax machine over email. Meaning they are well behind the times. Aside from fancy diagnostic scan tools, oscilloscopes, NVH measuring tools and emissions testing equipment, shops are starting to buy into the world’s endless offerings of electronic gadgets. My shop is no different and we thought it would be fun to share some of the non-traditional gadgets we have integrated into our shop’s operating philosophy.
In our shop, every employee gets issued a 11.6 inch screen Chromebook and a Google based email address that is tied to the shop. Currently, we are using Acer CB3-111-C670 that we picked up on Amazon for about $140 each. They come WIFI enabled, equipped with Google documents that can open and read any Microsoft Word document and they pack about a 6-8 hour battery life. These powerful little laptops are used for looking up service information, doing research, storing files and sending internal shop emails. Employees are permitted to take their issued Chromebook home and use it for personal emails, research or for the rainy day at home.
Lightweight, great battery life and powerful enough to do any non-Windows function we need, these Chromebooks make our team faster without putting our 4 Windows based laptops, that we use for scan tools and scopes, in harm’s way. Similar results could be gleaned from a tablet, but we have found that greasy hands cannot type into a tablet very well, so the full, yet compact, keyboards allow us to type and perform online searches while our hands are greasy or dirty.
Keep in mind these are not full-blown computers. Do not expect to run your shop accounting work on one. Scan tools, scopes and other testing equipment will also likely have conflicts. Keep your expensive Windows based laptops for the test equipment. Remember, you’ll need a sturdy WIFI signal OR a 4g/3g account to run your Chromebook.
The best part about these really is the cost. At $140 each it is easy to equip your whole shop. In fact, we keep one in our customer lounge so that folks that are waiting for service work to get completed can surf to the web, watch Youtube or whatever else they need. Smart Phone Probably even more important for us is our shop issued cellular smart phones. These work hand-in-hand with the employee issued Chromebook. They use the same Google email address and help keep communication between the back of the shop and the front flowing nicely. After trying multiple smart phones over the years our phone of choice is a Verizon based Droid Maxx. With a 3,500Ma battery it has the horsepower to make it through the day. The dual core 1.7GHz processor, while not the fastest in the land of smart phones, is plenty fast for any shop task we use it for.
The more practical uses of the phone are texting questions to the front, taking pictures during a repair, calling the shop if a road test results in a breakdown and creating a hotspot to run the Chromebook (if needed). Additional uses include our web based inspection program AutoVitals. Although AutoVitals does not condone using the smaller Smartphone for their inspection program, we have found the Droid Maxx to be relatively trouble free compared to some 6-7 other phones we have tried. Most electronic inspection providers prefer a tablet due to screen size, processor speed and operating system versions, but we have found the tablet to be rather clunky and difficult to always keep on you as you work. The phone’s 5 inch screen is sufficient (though not ideal) to get through the inspection app and the smaller size means the phone is always in a technician’s pocket ready to be used when the need arises. I suspect in time someone will pioneer an inspection app that is phone based.
We also use our smart phones to run various applications. A GPS app allows us to verify speedometer readings, a conversion app allows us to calculate from metric to standard units of measurement. We even have multiple add-on devices that hook up to our Smartphones via Bluetooth. An OBD2 scan tool, single channel scope, a standalone meter and even a infrared camera. With what little is listed here I assure you we are just touching the tip of the iceberg with what Smartphones will be doing for us as technology progresses.
A really neat technology that isn’t new, but that has recently become affordable is infrared technology. We have a $300 SEEK brand IR Camera that plugs into our Smartphone and displays pictures right on our Smartphone screen. From there we can take snapshots or even record a movie if we like. Flir Company also has Smartphone based models, as well as hand held units that utilize an SD card to store snapshots and movies.
You will find the handheld units about 2-3 times the price for the entry level stuff and you could easily spend $7,000.00 for a ultra high end camera. So far we have used our camera in cooling system diagnosis, diesel misfire testing and amp draw testing with some pretty neat results.
More than just a rugged camera to strap to a helmet while skydiving or skiing, the Go-Pro Camera allows you to be where you cannot be. For example, when I was about 21 years old I was working on a lifted pickup truck that had an odd noise/ vibration during acceleration from 15-25MPH. This was too fast for someone to stand outside of the truck and get a good idea on what was going on so I strapped myself to the bottom of the truck while a colleague drove the truck duplicating the offending conditions. Looking back, I cannot say this was one of my more intelligent moments, but we were able to diagnose the issue.
Today, I strap my trusty Go-Pro in place instead of myself and let it be my eyes. Thanks to snowboarders and adrenalin junkies all over the globe, there is a host of different adapters that allow us to secure the camera just about anywhere. Our Go-Pro Hero 3 is waterproof, records in 2.7K30 definition (which is close to movie grade), has tons of battery life and even can be remotely viewed via Bluetooth on – what else? – our Smart phones! I’ve found this valuable in nailing down noises and suspension shifting that we are unable to duplicate on the rack.
Although it is not cutting edge or even that hi-tech, one of our favorite gadgets in the shop is probably our 20x glasses. Aside from getting to look like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, these glasses have allowed us to find bad solder joints on numerous circuit boards. For measly $10.00 they cost on Amazon, these should be in every toolbox of every drivability tech in the country.
I am sure there are a ton of other gadgets I am leaving out. Feel free to email me with some of the neat and unconventional gadgets you use in your shop and maybe I’ll do an updated article at some point. I hope that this has inspired you to start thinking out of the box for tools and gadgets that are not as traditional as many of the tools we were used to seeing 20 years ago. Remember that investing in new technologies for your shop is a great way to keep your shop from falling behind. Take advantage of the world we live in and start putting gadgets to work so that you can get things done more efficiently.